Waning fast: Economic strength of religious nonprofits

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Employment levels at Focus on the Family today are about 730, only slightly higher than they were when the group relocated to the Springs.

Employment levels at Focus on the Family today are about 730, only slightly higher than they were when the group relocated to the Springs.

Colorado Springs: The Mecca of the radical Christian right.

Colorado Springs: Politically and philosophically dominated by religious nonprofits.

Colorado Springs: Economically driven by those same nonprofits.

Like it or not, that’s they city’s national image. Whether it’s wholly or even partly accurate is another question.

The economic impact of locally headquartered national religious nonprofits is, in fact, comparatively minor. These organizations account for less than 1.5 percent of the region’s employment and pay salaries that are just above the local median. And as once-dominant industry players such as Focus on the Family downsize, the sector’s influence on the local economy appears to be diminishing.

Last November, Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) compiled a list of Colorado Springs evangelical Christian ministries. No fewer than 103 organizations were profiled, ranging from Compassion International and Focus to tiny home-based outfits with one or two employees.

Yet while many Christian-oriented nonprofits call Colorado Springs home, just seven employers are responsible for much of the sector’s economic activity. Focus, Compassion, Biblica, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Young Life, the Navigators, and Bethesda each employ from 50 to 730 local staff.

Local employment among religious nonprofits grew from 9,948 in 1998 to 15,128 in 2008, according to Commerce Department figures. Their share of regional employment increased from 5.1 percent to 6.7 percent.

“Together with the military, religious nonprofits saved us (from a worse downturn),” said UCCS economist Fred Crowley, noting that the technology sector shed thousands of jobs during the same period.

Look a little more carefully at the statistics, though, and the picture changes.

The government definition of “religious non-profits” includes not only high-profile national associations such as Focus, but also local churches, grant-making agencies and other faith-related or faith-based organizations.

When the list is winnowed to include only national religious nonprofits, those with the greatest economic impact, a different picture emerges.

The Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. tracks 26 such organizations that call the Pikes Peak region home.

Together, they employ 3,250 people. That’s not insignificant, but it’s less than 1.5 percent of total regional employment, which totaled 225,564 in 2008.

Moreover, no major Christian nonprofit has relocated to Colorado Springs since 1991, when Focus on the Family moved here from Pomona, Calif. Of the seven major Christian groups here, five (the Navigators, Compassion, Young Life, Biblica and Bethesda) were located in Colorado Springs prior to Focus’ arrival.

Focus, which then employed 700 people, was lured in part by a multimillion-dollar grant from the El Pomar Foundation. The grant enabled the ministry to purchase the 45-acre campus that became the site of the organization’s sprawling headquarters.

Within three years, the ministry grew to employ more than 1,200 people. Its presence contributed both to the flowering of smaller nonprofits, and to the growth of non-denominational churches such as New Life and the Woodmen Valley Chapel.

But after shedding 110 staff members in August, Focus now has about 730 people on its payroll, only slightly more than it employed in 1991.

Focus isn’t alone in its woes. Many national nonprofits, both secular and religious, have reported sharply reduced donations over the past two recessionary years.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance, which employs 135 locally, is among them.

“Our high water mark was around 2007,” said CMA’s Eddie Huggins, “and last year was the first year we made budget since 1998.”

CMA raised $40.7 million, or 108 percent of its budgeted goal. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.

“That reflects a fair amount of reduction,” Huggins said. “We had dropped our budget forecast by $3 million. I guess you could say that our reduced expectations were met.”

CMA is a denomination, with 2,000 member churches. It relies exclusively on donations from churches and congregants.

“As the national economy struggles, the ability to give is reduced,” Huggins said, “and sadly, giving to the local church or to Focus is reduced.”

Among regional religious nonprofits, only Compassion seems to have withstood the downturn.

Compassion’s principal mission is child sponsorship. Through the ministry, more than 1 million children in 26 countries benefit from sponsorship programs, which cost donors $38 a month.

“Last year we grew by 26 percent,” said Compassion spokeswoman Kathy Redmond.

Compassion, which now employs more than 700 local residents, may soon overtake Focus as the sector’s largest employer.

“We’ve had steady growth (in employment),” said Redmond.

Still, the EDC, which once actively recruited national religious nonprofits, no longer has them on its radar screen.

“I’m thrilled that we have (Focus and other religious nonprofits) here,” said EDC chief Mike Kazmierski, “and we’re definitely attractive (to that sector of the economy). But we have to use our limited resources to concentrate on the next growth sector.”

Since 2006, only two small religious nonprofits have moved to Colorado Springs; together, they employ 41 people.

Kazmierski’s reasoning about why?

“Most nonprofits, religious or otherwise, are passionate about their cause and so they don’t want to divert money from their mission. (To lure them here) we’d have to pay their moving costs, find them free space, and we don’t have the resources to do that,” he said.

Kazmierski also noted that religious nonprofits use a different set of metrics than for-profit companies do when considering a move.

While low property taxes, sales or use tax rebates, and low utility costs may clinch the deal for a manufacturing company, such incentives aren’t particularly useful to nonprofits. In addition, most companies that consider relocating are growing rapidly. They may seek incentives, a more business-friendly climate, or access to a more skilled workforce.

“Nonprofits don’t grow at the rate of manufacturers,” said Kazmierski. “You’re not going to recruit a non-profit and see it grow from 100 employees to 5,000 in a few years.”

There may be other factors in play as well.

“I think that some religious nonprofits would experience some trepidation in coming here,” said Kristy Milligan of Citizens Project, a local organization that promotes religious freedom. “They might not want to try to assimilate in a community that’s perceived as so contentious.”